Covid-19 means live, virtual and constructive training’s time has come

The world has changed rapidly over the past 18 months and the way Australia’s defence organisation trains its people needs to change with it, or skills and readiness will surely decline.

A combination of the Australian Defence Force’s involvement in responding to natural disasters over the summer of 2019–20 and Covid-19 restrictions throughout 2020 resulted in the cancellation of major military exercises such as Hamel, and the scope of those that did proceed was reduced. Pitch Black 20, initially cancelled, was eventually held as a scaled-down virtual exercise. This pattern was consistent across the Five Eyes, with RIMPAC also drastically reduced in scale and scope.

Despite this reduction in activities, military personnel were still required to retain their individual skills and the ADF to maintain its readiness and preparedness levels. However, the lack of realistic training opportunities no doubt resulted in some atrophy of the ADF’s operational ability.

Despite the availability of a vaccine, Covid restrictions are going to remain with us for a while yet, precluding a return to large-scale training activities and preventing international travel to exercise with allies and partners. Greater investment is needed in alternative approaches that leverage emerging trends in simulation to rectify the deficiencies that the reduction in training will produce.

Live, virtual and constructive training, or LVC, is a taxonomy used mainly for military training, where there’s a mix between real people, simulated capabilities and environments, and computer-generated elements. Imagine a soldier in the field in the Northern Territory, calling in a simulated airstrike from an F-35 pilot seated in a simulator at a Royal Australian Air Force base in New South Wales against a computer-generated threat.

The holy grail of LVC is the ability to integrate all the individual components to conduct complex multidimensional training at varying levels of complexity and security, with widely dispersed personnel and platforms. The ultimate goal is an event that links all components together, giving the participants the maximum training benefit in as realistic an environment as possible.

The ADF conducts LVC to a limited extent. During 2020, the ADF participated in virtual exercises such as Coalition Virtual Flag, Wirra Jaya and Fleet Synthetic Training, to name a few. While all were international, they were constrained to a narrow focus on elements in the air, land and sea environments.

Unfortunately, LVC hasn’t yet reached its potential. The main obstacles are the cost of implementation and of service-specific training systems and, up until last year, the abundance of live training activities and exercises. The changed environment wrought by 2020 has provided the opportunity for a more considered approach to LVC for the ADF.

Covid-19 isn’t the only catalyst for change; the complexities of contemporary military equipment necessitate and complicate the development and implementation of LVC. The combat systems and weapons on high-end platforms such as the F-35 joint strike fighter and air warfare destroyer operate on manufacturers’ proprietary systems at high levels of classification and consume and create massive volumes of data. Stringent security protocols are required to protect both the source codes and the data that is carried, as well as access to a large amount of secure bandwidth.

These weapon systems are also expensive to operate. Combat aircraft cost tens of thousands of dollars per hour to fly, so every hour flown in a simulator means a flying hour saved, a longer period between maintenance cycles and a longer airframe life.

While increasing the scope, quantity and frequency of LVC activities would undoubtedly maximise training opportunities for the ADF and improve the skills and competencies of personnel, it will be difficult to achieve. However, there are some steps that could be taken to improve LVC opportunities.

To begin with, all relevant simulators and computer-based training systems need to be compatible with the LVC network. This will take a change to procurement processes, as current training systems often support only the needs of a particular weapon system, with little thought given to broader interoperability. Where appropriate, new and emerging systems should have LVC compatibility mandated. An extant system should be modified only if it will provide a proven return on investment.

Next, a stand-alone, multi-security, layered IT network should be established. This would remove the added bandwidth demands required to operate LVC from daily operating systems, reduce the chance of data spills and remove any possibility of a simulated scenario being mistaken for an actual event. A robust network may also help to assure manufacturers that their proprietary information won’t be shared with a competitor.

Importantly, an LVC network must be easy to join. A system that’s difficult to get into and navigate will be underutilised and likely provide no training benefit. The system needs to be built for the user and not the IT specialist.

Finally, LVC should not and cannot be pursued by Defence alone. LVC needs a balance of contributors: those who build and maintain the environment, those who provide the training expertise and those who use it. It must be a combination of military and civilian personnel with a broad mixture of qualifications and practical experience.

There’s already a community of Australian companies providing expertise and services in this area. Cubic Australia, for example, currently provides support to all three services across Australia and Milskil, mainly focuses on supporting the fighter force at RAAF Williamtown. Teaming and agreements are already in place and non-defence investments are being made. The North Queensland Simulation Park, or NQ SPARK, is a collaborative activity involving government, industry and academia that’s aimed at providing a multi-user simulation facility.

A more nuanced approach to LVC is needed but it won’t happen unless it is given a higher priority. Resources (particularly budgetary ones) and personnel need to be devoted to building the LVC enterprise. Importantly, LVC needs to be championed at the highest levels to ensure its implementation is promoted and enforced.

While the holy grail will likely never be achieved, circumstances have changed and the requirement to conduct more blended exercises creates opportunities to improve the quality and availability of LVC for the ADF. Training is about people and not just simulators or computers. Any LVC solution needs to be simple to use and provide a training benefit, not a burden.